Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Climate science: what makes it exciting?

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Can climate science find a communicator of the calibre of Brian Cox?
(C) Isabelle Adam, Flickr

Public engagement is an obligation for any publicly-funded area of science, but in climate science the gnarly world of climate policy and global warming misinformers makes it all the more important. Scientists are constantly encouraged to ‘communicate’ their ideas, to present a ‘human face’, and generally spend more time not doing science.

‘Public engagement’ is a very time-consuming activity because most scientists only reach small audiences: classrooms, the odd lecture theatre, a radio programme. When large audiences are on offer – on the evening news, say – they are generally restricted to a few facile sound-bites which, when edited, may do more harm than good to the public understanding of science. It takes a long time and you don’t get much out of it. The air-time and the audience are so restricted that the general public both misunderstands what climate science is and mistrusts climate scientists because they do not get the ‘human face’ they need.

Compare this situation to that of the most glamorous of the sciences, cosmology. Carl Sagan and others have had a massive impact on the public psyche. Sagan’s prose was fused with poetry, but some of his work was done for him because cosmology is a subject which inspires inherent fascination among the public. It has a lot going for it: the sheer scales involved, the mysticism. When Sagan declared ‘we’re made of star-stuff’ he was both stating fact and drawing people into a inspiring and beautiful worldview. Themes arise which were once solidly in the realm of religion. Humans crave these themes. Cosmology is existential and therefore it is exciting.

So what have we discovered from the success of cosmology in engaging and inspiring the general public? I think there are two main threads: first, a charismatic presenter who has a way with words; second, a ‘hook’ on which to hang ideas, an inspiring central tenet which the presenter can use to draw the audience in. Get these two things right and all of a sudden you can reach much wider audiences and communicate with them more effectively. Think about the enormous reach and influence of Sagan’s Cosmos and Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe.

Pass someone on the street and ask them to name a climate scientist. You will almost undoubtedly draw a blank. Perhaps you might get ‘Al Gore’. The field lacks a public champion. It is difficult to avoid shallowness as a celebrity scientist. Public adulation can be seen among the professional scientific community as a cheap way to gain a reputation at the expense of proper science. But putting this aside, the effectiveness of such fame is hard to deny.

Now we need a hook. Cosmology has several: themes of the origins of the universe, the nature of time and space, the (in)significance of humanity. Climate science has gradual change and noisy datasets. It’s not immediately inspiring in these terms. Advocacy groups have used the idea of extreme weather events being linked to climate change to try to galvanise the public. Now, sometimes in public engagement inaccuracy can be permitted, but some of the claims of links between extreme weather and climate change cross the line into deliberate falsehood. To make these claims is to lose the essence of the science. It’s time to look elsewhere.

My feeling is the best avenue for a beautiful hook to pin our ideas on lies in the atmosphere’s ‘swirliness’. The common public perception of the atmosphere is of a slab, which is not only wrong but also makes it hard to explain ideas like how the greenhouse effect actually works using the idea of an effective emitting level. In reality the atmosphere is a dynamic (everyone likes the word ‘dynamic’) entity where blobs of air dance around each other, interacting and mixing and making their effects felt on the human on the ground. Radiation from the Sun drives these parcels around.

This hook makes a link between the scientific theory and what we experience (weather). Cosmology traces a timeline across billions of years from the origin of the Universe to the development of a habitable Earth. We can’t quite do things on this scale, but there is scope here for similar connections between, say, solar heating anomalies and the weather we experience. In a sense this is the easy part. The hard part is then linking this to the concept of climate, and then on to the concept of climate change. One of the more powerful ideas that comes from the viewpoint of the ‘dance of the air parcels’ is that is addresses the common complaint that global warming can’t be happening because we had a cold winter. Immediately, present the public with the idea of this dynamic, ever-changing flow of air across the globe and it becomes easier to explain how circulation anomalies can create local temperature anomalies. Again, we have a link between our hook and some quite important (and accurate) science.

What remains is to find a hook for the concept of energy entering the climate system. It’s possibly to incorporate it into the ‘dance of the air parcels’ by explaining how solar energy drives these air parcels, but also that the total energy in the system can change. There are two problems here. First, it sounds like only changes in solar output can drive climate change. Second, it’s not very exciting.

‘Climate’ is a statistical concept around which we have built our theories. Statistics is a very difficult field to express in layman’s terms, and still more difficult to express in layman’s terms that a layman would want to listen to. This is our challenge then: find a champion, and find something for that champion to talk about. I haven’t done much in this post beyond issue these two challenges. It would be great to have a discussion over whether these two challenges really are the ones we face in public engagement, and if so how we should meet them.

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Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

One thought on “Climate science: what makes it exciting?

  1. Pingback: AGU’s FameLab: ‘the science take on American Idol’ | Angus Ferraro

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